Thursday evening, a group of around fifteen students and Gender and Sexuality Center Director Laura Haave gathered in front of Sayles for “Speak Up,” an annual student-organized event providing a platform for those impacted by sexual violence to share their stories—in person or read anonymously—and for allies to show their support. The event began with a candlelit march to the Weitz Center, where the group joined more students in a room prepared with couches, string lights, and a microphone for the story-sharing portion of the night.
According to Jake Woodward ’18, who has attended Speak Up his first, sophomore and senior years and spoke as a survivor his sophomore year, it’s “powerful to have a space where we can share stories that are often not told or not supposed to be told, or aren’t told to everyone.” While Carleton students who have experienced sexual violence can talk to friends, members of the student group Campus Advocates Against Sexual Harassment and Assault (CAASHA) or college psychiatrists, Woodward notes that Speak Up is unique in that it provides “a space that is so public.” As a result, students sharing stories must “trust that this is a safe space” and “speak something really hard and vulnerable” to friends and strangers alike.
Even noting the challenge and potential risk inherent in this, Woodward says, “When I think back to my experience at Carleton and to my own survivor narrative, [sharing my experience at Speak Up] my sophomore year was a really big punctuating point.” It forced him to “synthesize what I was feeling into a story that could be shared with the audience,” and offered a space for him to “process” his experience and reflect on “the stuff that’s hard but also where I’m healing and what healing means to me.”
Another powerful aspect of Speak Up, for Woodward, is “hearing the range of stories told and understanding the wide and different kinds of impacts that sexual and power-based violence can have.” He says that on a personal level these stories have let him “understand a little bit more” about the speaker and what they’re going through. “And there’s solidarity there,” said Woodward.
This year, that sense of solidarity was visible in a banner, which students stopped by the Gender and Sexuality Center to decorate the week leading up to Speak Up and which was carried during the march to the Weitz. “I am reclaiming MY spaces on campus!!!” read one quote, and another said, “Here for healing and all the ways it looks, all the time it takes.” Some voiced anger: “FUCK Carleton 4 being so shitty to survivors,” said one, while another said, “Don’t tell me how I should feel.” Two emphasized recognition of marginalized groups, reading “trans and Non-Binary folks I hear you <3 I see you” and “WOC [women of color] I am here for you.” Still others were simpler: “We are here <3,” “You are not alone” and “I believe you.”
The banner was one of several structural changes made in this year’s Speak Up. The Gender and Sexuality Center Associates (GSCAs), who organized the event with the help of Haave, also decided to move the speaking part of the event from the Goodhue Hall Superlounge to the Weitz, to bring back the candlelit march included in the first years of Speak Up, and to set up drop-boxes around campus to collect survivor art and writing. GSCA Connor McNamee ’20 said these changes represent the organizers’ efforts to make Speak Up somewhere “every survivor is able to come into that space and feel like they are being centered and cared for.”
Haave explained that having three relatively separate components of the event––the banner, the march and the open mic––allows students not able to participate in everything to attend “the part that’s healing for you.” Similarly, setting up dropboxes “gives people multiple ways to share their experiences and narratives that don’t involve a written story.” Changing the event’s location to the Weitz also could provide a more “safe and affirming” space for survivors than a residence hall, where assaults are more likely to have occurred.
“Any change that you make disrupts the space in some way,” Haave reflected, adding that “if [Speak Up] is perceived by the campus as an event that is primarily attended by white students, then any intentional disruption of that space has the potential to change that.”
McNamee also acknowledged that “since its inception [Speak Up] has been a very white-centric space.” “We didn’t want people to leave thinking that [power-based sexual violence] wasn’t a culture, that this wasn’t a systemic and institutional power issue,” he said. To combat this, “we changed a lot of language in our advertising and introduction and conclusion [to the open mic].”
Ultimately, McNamee said, “we don’t know everything” about how to decentralize Speak Up, “but we want to change this––we want to be more inclusive and more realistic and accurate to the issue… We live in a culture that silences people who’ve been affected by power-based sexual violence, and so to be able to create a purposeful space that’s centered on rejecting that notion of silence, and to also attempt to make this a space for radical healing, I think is important.”